Viaje Previo: Interviews & New Connections

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A flat just outside Chumuch

Over the first 10 days of March, Camote, Samuel, Liz and I hiked into the dam affected villages of Mendan and Tupen in order to capture footage and stories  which we will use in our upcoming media campaigns throughout Peru, April -July. These stories will form the more personal part of the campaign, aimed at creating an emotive connection between the people of Peru. The other side of the campaign will be based on harder facts and figures, aimed at educating people about the impact of dams on the Marañon.

IIt started off like any good journey should, with a flat tyre on a mountainous track. After days of buses, kombi’s, trucks and taxis we finally made it to the trailhead which would lead us down into the Maranon Valley.

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A long downhill

We descended below the cloud line and saw the dry forests of the Marañon dropping down steep hillsides to the riverside village of Mendàn. It was a slow descent lugging hevy backpacks filled with laptop, hard drive, multiple cameras, tripods and all kind of things you wouldn’t normally take on a hike.

We arrived in Mendan after dark; we quickly located the most senior person in the village and dropped the name of every mutual contact we could think of. After allaying suspicions that we were Oderbrecht engineers come to complete dam surveys, we were invited to a warm meal and a place to sleep.

Still don't know what this fruit is called, but it's delicious!

Still don’t know what this fruit is called, but it’s delicious!

Starting out on our second day, I enquired where I might be able to buy some fruit for breakfast. I was shocked when I was told that there was no-where. This shock quickly dispersed when the woman brought out Papayas and bananas for us to share. There is nowhere specific to buy fruit in the village, because it is so abundant. Everyone has their own little block of land (chakra) where they grow most of what they need, they were more than happy to share it with us.

That morning, our hopes of capturing dozens of interviews were dashed when we realised the villagers themselves still didn’t fully trust us, they told us they would need to have a meeting and decide together whether they wanted to talk. The head of the rondos was not in town (essentially local police & spokesperson of the village) and I had my doubts as to whether or not this meeting would happen. We

spent most of the day talking and getting to know the people & making friends; eventually people started to open up and shared their stories with us.

Our first interview

Our first interview

A grandmother in the village offered to feed us. We dined in her kitchen for many lunches and dinners, complete with guinea pigs running around the floor (Peruvian tradition, they clean up the scraps, and then when they get big enough you can eat em).

On day three, Liz (our lawyer/ community engagement person) had depart in the early hours of the morning, she was called unexpectedly back to Lima for work. Camote, Samuel (our video guys) and I found some momentum and really started to learn how to connect & get people to open up, also learning what questions to ask and how to approach the topics. We captured many more interviews, but were dismayed that there was no big ‘STORY’. We were hoping for interesting, funny and different stories; things that might create interest in these places.

In the afternoon we went down to the river and really appreciated its enormity & power for the first time since arriving. The river was meters higher than last time I was there, the water chocolate brown with silt. We sat quietly contemplating.

Chocolate river

Chocolate river

On day four, we hiked into the next village downstream, Tupen. Completing the 3-4  hour hike with our new friend Juan and his family; we marvelled at some of the rapids and thick choclatey waves. As we walked along the trail, we would stop sometimes to munch on the oranges that Juan had packed, or we would swap oranges for some other deliteful fruit with people walking in the other direction. Juan invited us to lunch at his mother in law’s house; which to my delite actually turned out to be breakfast because after a couple of hours of hanging out with his young kids, we were served with another incredibly delicious meal.

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Juan’s family

That afternoon we interviewed Juan’s mother in law. As we finished up, I could see Samuel and Camote were dissapointed. Camote shrugged and dejectedly told me ‘its the same thing, they all have the same stories, there is nothing new here’. It occured to me then that there wasn’t going a big story to capture; and that this was a story in itself. That the beauty and simplicity with how these people lived was all that there was. Each day men and women would go to work on the family chakra (small block of land where fruit, vegetbles cacao and cocoa are grown). Sundays are rest days, and other times there are festivals where the entire tight knit communitiy would celebrate together. Everyone told the same stories of how their children didn’t need hospitals, medications or doctors, the fair climate and organic, chemical & preservative free diet took care of that. They told us how they loved growing and eating their own food, fully supporting themselves, with a little bit being sold for some money for little things. They would often fish in the river, making the tastiest cerviche’s. When the river was low people could construct rafts of balsa wood and play on these, or go on small voyages down the river. Fruit was heavy from the trees in each chakra, cacao, mangos, papayas, bananas and many more exotic things that I can’t name. They told us how they were happy not having to work for anyone, just working and living for themselves. Happy that they never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from, or about job security; working for themsleves and enjoying the fruits of their own labor. Happiness. That’s all the story was. Simple Hapiness.

Emer gave us some Coconuts to drink/eat

Emer gave us some Coconuts to drink/eat

Day five we captured a few more interviews, and were given a tour of a large cacao plantation by new friend Emer Efrain. Cacao from the Maranon valley has a reputation of being especially rich with quite a distinctive flavour. It is highly sought after in some areas. After being fermented for 4 days, the dried the Cacao is loaded onto mules which carry it out of the valley to markey. I was happy to hear that Emer was interested in joining my expedition in may, he seemed really excited to spend more time getting to know the river in this way and learning to kayak. Late that evening we started hiking back to Mendan.

Hiking back upstream, after capturing the footage we needed, making new friends and learning from dozens of lessons along the way; I realised the side benefits of this project would be priceless. As a team, we are learning every day; this experience will help us tackle issues of the future. No matter the outcome of this campaign, there will be an incredible legacy left in the team that is working on this project.

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A beautiful end to the day

We sat, watching the last colours fade from the sky as the Maranon churned by. The rest of our journey would be made under the cover of darkness, but in this moment we were completely at peace. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly happy as we sat contemplating in silence; here were two more people who really felt the connection to the river, to that unstoppable flow of life; my simplest goal was coming to fruition; to bring new people to the river, and let it’s majesty draw them in. This was just 5 short days by the river. I felt eager to see what we are going to achieve as a team over the coming months and excited by what an incredible experience our 3 week river journey will be, shared with a group of people all focused and motivated to help this cause.

Starting day six at 4:30am, we failed in finding a mule to load our backpacks onto. We crossed the river on the same cable car we arrived on, it felt like much more than 6 days since we had been here last.  We began a (very) slow ascent back out of the Maranon valley, sweating under the hot sun and heavy backpacks. For me the uphill battle to climb out of the Marañon valley was symbolic of the rest of our journey in this project; there are still enormous hurdles to overcome and we will struggle under the weight every step of the way; but the experience itself & things we learn along the way will undoubtedly be worth every drop of sweat.

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